An Orillia entrepreneur and a student from the Lakehead campus in Orillia were among those recognized at the eighth annual County of Simcoe Newcomer Recognition Awards that were streamed virtually for the first time.
Award winners were joined by local immigration partners, elected officials and guest speaker Indira Naidoo-Harris to celebrate diversity and its positive impacts on local communities. Thursday's event featured a cultural performance by the Bhangra Crew Ontario.
Ahmed Alasfar and Faten Alawad, the husband-and-wife duo behind Barrie food company Feast from the East, were presented with the immigrant entrepreneur award. During his speech at the virtual ceremony, Alasfar thanked the Canadian government and his sponsors.
“It feels really good and I am very proud of myself and my family,” Alasfar said after the ceremony.
The couple opened their own restaurant in Syria in 2011. However, in 2012, when the conflict in Syria escalated, Alasfar moved his family to Lebanon. The couple fled to Canada in 2015 as refugees, sponsored by a Barrie group. Since then, their food has become a staple of the Barrie Farmers' Market.
In addition to operating Feast from the East, Alasfar and Alawad each work between 35 and 30 hours per week at other jobs, as well as caring for their six children. Alasfar’s brother and his family also live in Barrie and help with the restaurant operations.
Feast from the East boasts a Syrian Halal cuisine, including items such as rice, lamb and eggplant salad. Alasfar says the most popular dish is probably the falafel, although he enjoys making baklava the most.
Looking forward, Alasfar said he hopes to save enough money to open a brick-and-mortar location for Feast from the East with his brother. Long-term, he wants to buy a home for his family.
“It's been a dream of mine to share our food with the world and I want people to learn about our food so we can open a restaurant in the future,” he said. “I am also working on improving my English skills, and finally, I want to get Canadian citizenship in the near future.”
Eight awards were given out to celebrate the achievements of local immigrants, businesses and community champions.
Immigrant Entrepreneur – Yoon Joo Hong-McParland
Hong-McParland operates two businesses in Orillia: YJ Dance Fit & Wellness and YJ SeoulFood.
She opened YJ DanceFit in 2014, starting with a handful of clients working out in her basement. In November 2019, she opened a new studio on Atherley Road. Undeterred by the pandemic, she is offering programming through Zoom. YJSeoulFood has offered home-cooked Korean cuisine at the Orillia Farmers' Market for five years.
She has participated in the Orillia Public Library’s How-to Festival, teaching local residents how to make kimchi, and variations such as sugar-free kimchi and vegan kimchi to support residents with special dietary needs.
Service Excellence – Rudy Grewal
Grewal is a recent graduate of Lakehead University’s Honours Bachelor of Arts and Science with a concentration in human nature specializing in psychology and sociology.
As a student, Grewal dedicated a significant portion of his time to support student life, and was an important liaison with the University’s Office of Human Rights and Equity, and Lakehead University International. He introduced the International Day to Eliminate Racial Discrimination at the Orillia campus in 2019 by hosting a resource table in the Learning Commons, leading up to the International Day to Eliminate Racial Discrimination.
In 2020, Rudy assisted with planning and facilitating an online discussion group on systemic racism hosted by Lakehead University’s Office of Human Rights and Equity. He co-chaired the #ITSTARTS campaign for Lakehead University and promoted events such as the diversity themed paint night and multicultural campus tour.
Community Champion – Jason McKague
McKague is a Barrie resident and business owner. He volunteers as a mentor with the Job Finding Club for Immigrants at Georgian College and assists newcomer job seekers by providing information about the local labour market and connecting newcomers with local job opportunities.
He also participates in networking and mentoring events and has met job seekers one-to-one to support them in their job search.
Community Champion – Samah Hadaia
Hadaia arrived in Barrie with her family in June 2017. She is originally from Syria, but lived in Jordan and Cyprus before settling in Canada.
In 2017 she volunteered to help translate teaching documents into Arabic for Georgian College. In 2018, she joined the Ethnic Mosaic Alliance as the board secretary.
In 2018, she worked with the Barrie Public Library, and the Job Finding Club for Immigrants to create a drop-in career conversation circle for newcomers. She has also worked with the Barrie Public library’s multicultural book club.
Ethno Cultural Group – Barrie Indian Association
The Barrie Indian Association is an ethno-cultural group created to culturally support immigrants from India and to share the richness of their culture with their local community for the past ten years. Celebrations such as Holi and Diwali are organized and celebrated regularly and have been open to all members of the community. The organization provides a network to newcomers in the community, in particular East Asian International Students from Georgian College.
Multiculturalism in Education – Educator: Lisa Boate
Boate is an itinerant English language learner resource teacher with the Simcoe County District School Board.
As part of her role in schools, Lisa supports practices and policies that improve the experience of newcomer families such as offering translated materials and posting multilingual signage in schools. Her influence on teachers has increased the use of dual language books in school libraries, celebrations of multilingualism, and the use of translation tools in classrooms.
Multiculturalism in Education – School: Boyne River Public School
Multiculturalism and diversity is embedded in all aspects of school life at Boyne River Public School.
The school focuses staff professional development on areas that support the issues and challenges faced by many newcomers.
The school has gone to great lengths to involve the community in school council, parent spring event and celebrations and assemblies held at the school. Boyne River fosters a sense of belonging through community circles, and intentional teaching that honours language, heritage and culture while addressing all forms of exclusion, discrimination and inequality.